10/25/2007 09:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the Pornography of Devastation

Natural disasters, like wars, are fantastical traumas, the unimaginable made manifest in a torrent of destruction. There is an immediacy to images of hills alight in fire. But what happens after the initial trauma has past? What then?

There is a kind of pornographic rubbernecking that makes up much of our daily news consumption. The working news model is based on a poll-tested assumption that viewers are drawn to the gore of natural disaster and war, less drawn to what happens after, when the flying circus has gone. The flying circus is what my old colleague at CNN, Ingrid Formanek, called the traveling war zone contingent, of which she was a charter member.

This, of course, is the case of New Orleans. "The story has lost its punch; there's no real news peg; no budget for enterprise stories; too many demands for live coverage; staffing cutbacks; there are no pictures; the audience isn't interested anymore."

Looking back on it, I can see now why I was drawn to the stories and countries I covered when I was a journalist overseas, so many repairing -- as in Rwanda and Bosnia -- from the most horrid of all experiences on the human scale. How do people muster the strength of spirit it takes to simply go on, not to mention adapt, learn, and re-imagine a future so scarred by the recent past?

In many ways, these are the issues that we as a nation are facing as a result of the successive traumas of September 11th, Katrina, and Iraq. They are issues that I've heard discussed in so many different ways in my ongoing journeys by Greyhound, part of a project aimed at rendering this pivotal period in story, song, and image.

For many who travel by bus, including some of the 3.6 million seniors who live on the equivalent of less than $9,400 a year, there is a stark indifference of a slow devastation, a time-elapsed disaster of the human kind, one that lacks the immediacy and images of others.

If you were to put the nation's 30 largest cities side by side (hypothetically speaking), include in this supercity L.A., New York, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, Detroit, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Columbus, Austin, Baltimore, Charlotte, Seattle, Boston, Denver, D.C., Nashville, Las Vegas, all the way down the list of 30 cities to Portland. If you totaled the population of this megalopolis, it would almost reach the number of Americans who live in poverty.

Thirty-seven million of our people live on the equivalent of less than $12,800 a year for a single parent. Sixteen million of these people live in what's called deep poverty, which is half the poverty threshold: $6,400 for a single parent; $4,700 for a senior.

"There's another kind of violence," Robert Kennedy said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. on the the night after the Dr. King was shot. "It's just as deadly as the shot in the night. This is the violence of institutions...the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. the slow destruction of a child by hunger."